Knitting Susan

Mary E. Wilkins

From Youth's Companion Vol. 66 No. 1 (January 5, 1893)

“I don't b'lieve she can airn the salt to her porridge,” said Widow Martha Pillsbury. She stood with her hands on her hips, and scowled meditatively, as she looked at the girl who stood, as it were, on trial.

“I can knit,” said Susan.

“Do for massy sakes hold your tongue, child!” cried Widow Pillsbury, irritably. “If you've said you could knit once, you have said it twenty-five times in five minutes. There's something to be done besides knittin', I guess. Look at your hands!”

Susan held up her hands with a pathetic readiness, and looked at them.

“I can knit,” said she, again.

Widow Pillsbury shook her head impatiently.

“There is no doubt that the girl comes on this town,” said Squire Mayhew, magisterially; and Deacon Eaton and Captain Cephas White nodded with sober assent.

There was quite a party in Captain White's kitchen. Widow Martha Pillsbury with the town poor — three old women, four old men and the girl, Susan Dix — stood before Squire Mayhew, Deacon Eaton, Captain White and Mrs. Captain White, who was tending a boiling pot over the fire.

There was no regular almshouse in the town of Whitfield, and Widow Pillsbury boarded the town poor for a small stipend, to be eked out by their labor.

She was popularly supposed to make quite a lucrative business of it; for under her shrewd management these miserable, trembling old people did all the work on her farm. The old men milked, tended the garden like live scarecrows, and mowed in straggling rows. The old women churned, washed the milk-pans and did other little jobs indoors.

Widow Pillsbury had never refused a new recruit to her decrepit corps, but now she looked askance at Susan Dix.

Susan was about sixteen years old, and tall and slender. Her poor blue homespun petticoat draped her awkward limbs scantily; her ragged little striped homespun blanket was drawn tightly over her shoulders, and her feet were almost out of her cowhide shoes. She stood holding up her hands before them all.

The hands had been badly burnt when she was a child, and allowed to heal without proper care. They were useless for nearly all practical purposes; but Susan moved the forefinger on the right one bravely.

“I can knit,” said she, again.

There was the sweet, thoughtless laugh of a child about her mouth, but her blue eyes were vacant.

“I don't keer nothin' about knittin',” said Widow Pillsbury. “We can't afford to wear many stockin's to our house; we've got to go barefoot. I don't b'lieve she can do anythin' worth doin' with them hands; an' more than that, she's simple. I've got two bedrid old women on my hands now; they gin out this last winter. I've got to look out for myself a leetle grain.”

The seven old faces behind her leered and nodded approvingly.

“She don't want no sich gal as that,” one old woman muttered.

“I can knit,” Susan remarked again.

She suddenly began to knit an imaginary stocking with imaginary needles, as if to prove the truth of her assertion.

“Do keep still, for massy sakes!” sniffed Widow Pillsbury.

Squire Mayhew, Deacon Eaton and Captain Cephas White, the three select men of Whitfield, looked at each other helplessly, then at Susan. She gravely knitted on in pantomime, the most forlorn pauper of them all; unable to gain footing in an almshouse; tossed like a worthless thing from one village to another, from Braintree to Stoughton, from Stoughton to Whitfield; her claim to charity in each disputed — she did not seem to realize it.

Captain Cephas White's wife, Betsy, turned away from her boiling kettle. She was a small woman, with a stern and weary face.

“Can you knit stockin's?” she asked Susan.

Susan smiled and nodded.

“Can you seam, an' narrer, an' slip an' bind?”

Susan nodded again. Her eyes gleamed.

Captain White's wife went across the room to a cupboard, and took out of it a great blue yarn stocking with knitting-needles in it.

“Here!” said she, peremptorily. “This is done down to the heel; now if you can knit, jus' knit.”

Susan seized upon the stocking with a little grunt of joy. All in the room watched her while she knitted. Mrs. Betsy White stood sharply observant at her elbow. Presently she looked around at her husband.

“She can knit stockin's,” said she, decisively. “She's set that heel as well as I could. I'm goin' to keep her. I've got seven boys to knit for besides you, an' I've got the rheumatiz in my hand.” Then she turned to Susan.

“Take off your blanket an' set down, an' keep on with that stockin',” she commanded.

Susan took off her blanket obediently, and sat down on a little stool which her new mistress indicated with a wave of her hand. Then she knitted on and on. Widow Pillsbury and the town poor went away, and presently the three selectmen, after settling upon the amount to be allowed by the town to Captain White for Susan's board.

Mrs. White, with wooden spoon in hand, listened sharply while they discussed the matter. She came of a thrifty family, and had married into one, and had as keen an eye for a bargain as Mrs. Pillsbury herself.

“You'd ought to call it another shillin',” said she. “She seems rather simple, an' she's goin' to be considerable care. It ain't likely she'll earn enough to nigh pay for her keep, either.”

Susan, in the corner, with her weak, fair head bent over her knitting-work, did not pay any attention to the talk concerning her. Her fingers looped the yarn swiftly around the needles, and all her simple mind seemed to be on them.

“I never see her beat for knittin',” Mrs. White told her husband that night, after Susan had gone to her straw bed in the attic chamber.

Captain Cephas White had a masculine contempt for and ignorance of all purely feminine industries.

“Don't seem as if that was much towards her keep,” said he, dubiously.

“I guess you'd think it was if you had all the knittin' to do for eight men-folks, an' some of 'em goin' through a heel a week,” returned his wife, “an' the rheumatiz in all your knittin' fingers, into the bargain.”

Mrs. Captain White had all the stern resolution of an early New England matron. She had long been overworked, but had still grasped her duties hard, however sharply they pricked. She had cooked and washed, tended the dye-pot and the wheel and loom, moulded candles and knitted, and her will had kept her flagging muscles to their tasks.

She had never flinched nor complained; but now no one knew what a relief to her was that knitting girl in the corner.

Full of faithful and sober affection for her family as was Mrs. White, she gave little expression to it in looks or words; but sometimes her voice would soften with kindness when she spoke to Susan. She had had one girl of her own, but this girl had died when a baby.

“Suppose Deborah had lived, an' been left the way Susan is,” she sometimes reflected, with that singular insight into the past as well as the future, which is the outcome of a hard and stinted life; and sometimes the thought of the little dead Deborah seemed to abide in the chimney-corner with Susan at her knitting.

Susan was well cared for. She had plenty to eat, and went as comfortably clad as any girl of her age in Whitfield. Mrs. White once sent her to school, but the attempt to teach her proved vain. Her knitting-work, the mysteries of heel and toe, of seaming and narrowing, seemed to have exhausted all her slender mental power, if indeed her mind had been capable of acquiring other knowledge.

She was quite helpless before her primer, and after one or two trials her school-days were over, and she returned to the one task which she could do well.

As some little black cricket, a wanderer from the fields, might have sat on Captain Cephas White's hearth, working its rasping fiddle, always in one note and key, so poor Susan sat there, always knitting.

Sometimes, indeed, Mrs. White would bid her put her warm blanket over her head and go out to coast downhill, or slide on the ice, and she would obey readily enough, but she always carried her knitting-work with her. Susan had no mates of her own age, but among younger girls and children she was quite a favorite. Her smiling docility made amends for her lack of wisdom.

She was always ready to drag the rude sled uphill after the coast, and always ready to toil at a panting run across the ice of Mattapog Pond, holding a long stick, to the other end of which children clung and slid.

But always in the intervals of such sport she knitted. She knitted standing to take breath on the crest of the snowy hill; she knitted resting a moment on the opposite shore of Mattapog, under the shadow of its dark evergreens.

Gradually her faithfulness to her occupation gained her a title as fitting in its way as the squire's or the parson's. Everybody in Whitfield called her “Knitting Susan.”

“That's Knitting Susan,” people would explain to some stranger from Stoughton or Braintree, peering wonderingly around the wing of a dusty “shay” at the girl going knitting down the street of Whitfield.

There was among the village people a theory, scouted by some and entertained doubtfully by others, that Susan, when knitting, was “more like other folks.” It was evident to all, nevertheless, that her smile was not so broad and wavering, that her blue eyes had become steadier, and her whole expression more concentrated.

“Sometimes when she's on the heel I ask her questions, an' she answers as sensible as anybody,” Mrs. Captain White would say, half-defiantly. She was sometimes inclined to be resentful when Susan was called “simple.”

The first sabbath on which Susan attended service in the Whitfield meeting-house with Captain Cephas White, his wife Betsy and his seven sons, she produced a great excitement by calmly taking her knitting from her pocket, and falling to work.

She was seated between Mrs. White and the tallest son, David. David, his honest, sober face set straight ahead, and Mrs. White, intent in the depths of her poke bonnet on the discourse, did not at first notice her.

Susan knitted through “foreordination” without interference, although there were heads craning toward the White pew and eyes, some amused and some scandalized, observing the desecration of the place and the day.

But suddenly the long rod of the tithing-man was reached in past the file of Captain White and his sons, and rapped Susan smartly on the arm. Then the poke bonnet turned.

“Put that knittin'-work into your pocket,” ordered Mrs. White, quite pale with wrath and horror. And Susan obeyed; but the earnest look with which she had watched the parson expounding the doctrine of foreordination faded immediately.

The innocent, wild smile came again; her eyes wandered aimlessly. A little while after the tithing-man had tiptoed back down the aisle Susan again knitted, but this time in her skilful pantomime; and her eyes were again fixed upon the parson. The poke bonnet turned, and Mrs. White nudged her sharply. Susan stopped, and hid her hands in her lap, but soon the pantomime recommenced.

The tithing-man again came forward, but his influence was brief. Susan knitted persistently on her invisible stocking, and tried to concentrate her poor mind upon “effectual calling.”

Captain Cephas White and his wife had long conferences with the parson and deacons over the matter.

“The whole of it is, she can't seem to sense the doctrines unless she's either knittin' or makin' believe knit,” said Mrs. Betsy White.

The subject was such a bewildering one that no finally decisive steps were taken. Poor Susan continued her sabbath pantomime of the week-day task, but always with occasional sharp nudges from Mrs. White's elbow, and hard raps from the rod of the tithing-man.

However, as time went on, Mrs. White considered Susan, in the main, very much improved.

“She aint so much simpler than some other folks,” she would sometimes remark, defiantly. She took great pains to have the locks of fair hair laid smoothly around Susan's ears, and she even bought for her a tortoise-shell comb. The girl's face, although it never lost the expression of a simple child, was round and rosy, and almost pretty.

Mrs. White had much pride in Susan's knitting, and indeed her exploits in that direction became the wonder of the village. Even Captain White admitted that she paid well for her keep, since she not alone wholly supplied the whole White family with stockings, but earned many a shilling by knitting for other people.

It was just two years from the time Susan Dix had come to Whitfield, on a sunny January afternoon, that Mrs. White sent her to Squire Mayhew's with some finished stockings. Susan carried them in a bag on her arm, but she knitted another stocking as she went along.

It was nearly two miles to Squire Mayhew's, and it was nearly sunset when she came homeward along the east shore of Mattapog Pond. On the other side the low evergreen-trees stood, black-green and clear against a golden sky.

The weather had been very mild all day; the water had dripped from the eaves, the snow-banks had settled, and the fields looked like white honeycomb. The ice on Mattapog pond showed watery patches.

As Susan walked on, knitting, she heard a great shout of children: “Hullo, Knittin' Susan! Hullo!”

“Hullo!” Susan called back, with ready merriment.

The children came plunging out of the birch growth on the shore of the pond. There were four little girls. One of them was Dorothy Mayhew, the squire's daughter. Her face was like a rose in the hood of her scarlet cloak; her voice was sweet and imperious.

“Drag us across the pond, Knitting Susan!” she demanded.

Susan looked at them doubtfully, her fingers clicking the needles. The children all raised a clamour of appeal, their soft, radiant faces smiling up into hers.

“Mebbe pond break through,” said Susan, shaking her head in a troubled way.

“No, it won't, it won't!” pleaded little Dorothy Mayhew. She danced up and down like a red bird.

“It won't! it won't!” echoed the other children. Susan still looked doubtful, but she had always thought the children very wise, and she yielded.

The evergreen-trees on the opposite shore of Mattapog Pond stood out bleaker against a paler sky when the little expedition started. Susan held the long birch pole in her misshapen hands, which had good power of grasp in them, and the four children clung to the pole, sliding on their heavy little shoes.

Many a time, had they been older and wiser, they would have turned back, if indeed that could have been done safely, for the ice upon Mattapog Pond proved terribly treacherous. Often they had to leap from one ice-cake to another; but the children only laughed and shouted more merrily.

Susan tugged on as fast as she was able over the clear spaces of ice, straining forward with sidewise jerks, and at last they had nearly reached the opposite shore in safety. They could hear the sweet roar of the one great pine in the midst of the low spruce-trees.

Suddenly Susan was aware of a stretch of water between them and the shore. She was in advance of the others by the length of the birch pole. There was ample time for her to jump, but she stopped short.

“Pond's breakin' in!” she shouted, in her rude, untrained voice. “Pond's breakin' in! Jump! jump! jump!

She seized the frightened children one after another and pushed them toward the edge of the ice, calling out “Jump! jump!”

She fairly forced them over. Little Dorothy Mayhew was last, and she shrank back, crying. The fissure was quite wide. Susan raised the birch pole threateningly over her pretty head as if to strike. “Jump!” she screamed; “or I'll whip, whip, whip!

And little Dorothy jumped in a panic, and cleared the water safely, although she fell flat on the other side, and was dragged up by her sobbing comrades.

But after that there was no chance for Susan. The space of dark, deep water was far too wide to be cleared. Dorothy's jump had caused the ice to recede farther.

The little ones huddled together on the shore, straining their necks toward Susan, and besought her vainly to come.

But Susan stood now on a small island of ice, with wide, deep water all around her. Mattapog Pond had broken up after the long January thaw.

She nodded smilingly to the little ones on the shore. Then they saw her take her knitting-work out of her pocket and begin to knit. She paid no more heed to the wailing children. It was as if poor Susan were trying to collect her simple wits to meet death, as she had tried to collect them in the meeting-house, with the thundering of the stern Puritan doctrines in her ears. She stood there quite erect, and set the heel of her stocking. The children watched and wept. Then they saw her waver and reel, and disappear.

It was a half-hour after that before Squire Mayhew came and took the crying children home by the road on his ox-sled, and it was noon of the next day before Knitting Susan was taken tenderly out of Mattapog Pond. And by night the tale had spread over the whole village of Whitfield, how she had been found with her knitting-work fast in her poor hands, which had been faithful even in death to their one task.

And although it was many years ago, the tale still lives there.